More than 100 delegates from 50 institutions attended the first Conference of Theological Schools, hosted by Harvard University in 1918. 

Courtesy Association of Theological Schools

This year, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is celebrating its centennial with the theme of “Legacy and Innovation.” During the association’s Biennial Meeting, which will take place in Denver, Colorado, on June 20 and 21, representatives from 270 member schools, candidates for membership, and other guests will look back at 100 years of accomplishments while anticipating a future rich with new ways of delivering theological education for more diverse audiences and an increasingly eclectic range of ministries. In some ways, the retrospective and future views are unrecognizably different. In others, they share remarkable similarities.

ATS began in 1918 as the Conference of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, a gathering of delegates from more than 50 Protestant seminaries who met to “discuss problems of theological education arising out of the war.” Following on the heels of that first conference, a 1920 gathering established the pattern for a Biennial Meeting.

The values and commitments that characterize the association today were evident in the deliberations of its founders. From their earliest conversations, they sought to erect a big tent open to broad ecclesial participation, to support bilateral engagement in a global context, to study the industry, and to promote the highest quality of theological education. 

The big tent has gotten bigger over the decades. Following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, much of the expansion of the ATS membership came from Roman Catholic schools. Since the 1980s, the increase in membership has largely reflected the growth of evangelical Protestant churches.

While a look at the original 1918 gathering reveals an exclusively white, male enterprise, today ATS has moved solidly toward racial, ethnic, and gender diversity that is more reflective of the communities of faith that member school graduates serve.

To be sure, ATS member schools differ from one another in significant ways, but they share a commitment to good theological education. In 1936, ATS adopted its first accrediting standards and authorized the creation of the Commission on Accrediting. Those initial standards defined quality theological education in a mere 610 words — in contrast with today’s standards, which comprise 29,214 words.

The Commission on Accrediting issued its first report at the 1938 Biennial Meeting. Sixty-one schools had applied for accreditation. Forty-six of these were granted accredited status, but of these, 35 schools were deemed as needing improvement and so received notations. 

For the next 20 years, the accreditation function — indeed the entire enterprise — was conducted using volunteer labor. It was not until 1956 that the organization formally incorporated and retained its first full-time executive director, Charles Taylor. Five individuals have succeeded him, with Daniel O. Aleshire serving from 1998 to 2017 and Frank Yamada just completing his first year in the position. With the increasing complexities of accreditation and the expansion of programs, the staff has grown to 21. The office was first in Dayton, Ohio, but ultimately the association relocated to Pittsburgh, where it remains. 

Over the years, the ATS operation has grown to encompass not just accreditation but a full range of programs and services that encourage, educate, inform, and connect faculty and administrators in their service to nearly 73,000 students.

The accrediting standards have undergone two major redevelopments, in 1972 and 1996, with a possible third on the horizon. And the Educational Models and Practices project, a comprehensive look at new ways of doing theological education, is confirming that the enterprise of theological education will continue to change dramatically as ATS enters its second century. 

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